The numbers certainly look dramatic – St. Paul enrollment alone is projected to fall 1,700 students between 2007 (K-12 enrollment 39,550) and 2009, according to the SPPS website – but does the declining enrollment in Minneapolis and St Paul public schools mean charters are winning the battle for “customer choice”?
Not so, say members of both the St. Paul and Minneapolis school boards. In interviews, several members sketched a complex situation influenced as much by demographics as much as by “consumer choice.”
Lydia Lee, chair of the Minneapolis Board of Education, described a district in a state of demographic turmoil, with the legal and financial odds stacked against it. For the last 10 years, the Minneapolis school district has been getting younger as more young professionals move into the city. However, most of these new arrivals are unmarried, and according to a 2004 independent demographic study commissioned by the district, many move away before starting a family.
In some neighborhoods, such as Minneapolis’s North Side, many families have moved out, Lee said Enrollment in North High School has dropped by one half since the mid-1990s. Part of the reason, according to Lee, is that an entire public housing complex was demolished, beginning in 1994, without locating most of the replacement units in the neighborhood. Families driven out by the foreclosure crisis might have an additional impact, she added, but it was too soon to tell. [Recent rumors to the contrary, North High will remain open.]
Most importantly, Lee said, the number of babies being born, both in Minnesota and the United States, is steadily declining, as the “baby boom” generation moves beyond child-bearing years, and their children have fewer children.
Lee did not deny that charter schools have played a major role in drawing away students. However, citing independent studies commissioned by the district, she claimed that 40% of parents who pull their children from district schools choose charters because the district is legally required to provide transport for charter students from school to their front doors. As a cost-cutting measure, Minneapolis school buses currently pick up students in district schools from designated stops, instead of directly from a student’s front door. Lee said the parents surveyed were worried about their children’s safety as they walked from home to bus stop.
Transportation requirements, Lee said, not only impose a financial burden – the district is reimbursed for less than one fourth of the cost of transportation – but also strip away students. This also diminishes state and federal funding, since districts are given assistance on a per-student basis.
In contrast to Minneapolis’s complexities, Tom Goldstein, treasurer of the St. Paul school board, said St. Paul has a “dramatically different” situation.
Like Minneapolis, St Paul faces a steadily declining number of children born in very year. “Kids are aging out of the system,” and not being replaced by younger children, Goldstein said. As in Minneapolis, this means fewer state and federal dollars. To balance the budget, Goldstein said, teachers must be fired and some programs curtailed.
However, he said, administrative reforms several years ago mean the district can easily coordinate reforms throughout the school system, giving them an advantage when trying to build parent’s confidence in St Paul’s schools.
St Paul “certainly has some competition” from charter schools, Goldstein said, but instead of damaging the district, it forces them to be “more nimble and creative.”
New program offerings beginning in September 2008, such as the Hmong academy at Phalen Lake Elementary and the gender-segregated elementary classes at North End Elementary, are “most definitely a response to charter schools,” said St. Paul school board member Keith Hardy. The new programs are designed to compete with charter schools that have special academic or cultural focuses, Hardy said, and are intended to mitigate the unavoidable drop in students, until the trend levels off in the coming years.
James Sanna is a freelance writer and an intern at the Daily Planet.